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Orbital ATK proposes lunar orbit habitat

Orbital ATK lunar orbit habitat

An artist’s rendering of a Cygnus-derived lunar orbit habitat with an Orion spacecraft docked with it. (Click to enlarge) Image Credit: Orbital ATK

Orbital ATK unveiled a proposal this week for the creation of a four-person lunar orbit habitat which could be sent to the Moon as early as 2020. The outpost would utilize a modified version of the company’s Cygnus cargo ship as well as NASA’s Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

This lunar orbit habitat could serve as both a science platform for studying Earth’s natural satellite as well as a training base for eventual crewed missions to Mars and the rest of the Solar System.

The plan was revealed on Wednesday, May 18, before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., by former NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson, a veteran of three Space Shuttle missions and two stays aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Culbertson is now president of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group.

ISS-47_Cygnus_OA-6_approaching_the_ISS_NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Orbital ATK would utilize the flight-proven design of the Cygnus cargo ship to build a lunar orbit habitat. To date, five have successfully delivered cargo to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

Culbertson outlined the company’s future goals for space to the subcommittee: A modified version of the Cygnus cargo carrier would be placed into lunar orbit in 2020. There it would undergo one year of testing in cislunar space. Once the habitat checks out, an initial group of astronauts would be sent to live there in 2021 via an Orion spacecraft; they would become the first humans in the vicinity of the Moon since the Apollo 17 mission in December of 1972.

The habitat would then be expanded upon over the next few years by the delivery of more modified Cygnus modules, carried aloft by NASA’s SLS rocket.

Culbertson said having astronauts living and working in lunar orbit during the 2020s would provide both direct experience and technology testing for later crewed missions to Mars in the 2030s.

“A lunar orbit habitat will extend America’s leadership in space to the cislunar domain,” Culbertson said. “A robust program to build, launch and operate this initial outpost would be built on NASA’s and our international partners’ experience gained in long-duration human space flight on the International Space Station and would make use of the agency’s new Space Launch System and Orion deep-space transportation system.”

Orbital ATK was selected by NASA in 2015 to study an initial version of a cislunar habitat that could evolve over time into an expanded research platform with many of the capabilities required for a human mission to Mars. These studies fall under NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program, a public-private partnership model that seeks commercial development of deep-space exploration capabilities. This model supports more extensive human spaceflight missions in the “proving ground” of cislunar space.

Additionally, NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and other international partners could use the evolving outpost as a staging base and safe haven for lunar landing expeditions and robotic surface operations.

“Since many aspects of operations in deep space are as yet untested, confidence must be developed through repeated flights to, and relatively long-duration missions in, cislunar space,” Culbertson said. “Orbital ATK continues to operate our Cygnus cargo logistics vehicle as a flagship product, so we are ready to quickly and affordably implement an initial Cygnus-derived habitat in cislunar space within three years of a go-ahead.”

Orbital ATK has already developed the Cygnus vessel beyond its initial function as a cargo carrier. The spacecraft is currently serving as a research platform capable of hosting technology risk-reduction demonstrations in Earth orbit for later deep space operations.

The first such technology demonstration is called the Spacecraft Fire Experiment-1 (SAFFIRE-1). Designed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center, SAFFIRE-1 is currently aboard the most recent Cygnus currently berthed with the ISS.

When this Cygnus unberths from the space station in June and is commanded to a safe distance away from the outpost, the Cygnus Pressurized Cargo Module will become the host to the largest deliberately-ignited fire ever created in space. The lessons from SAFFIRE-1 and its two follow-up experiments will provide invaluable information on dealing with fires aboard a spacecraft, an especially dangerous situation for deep space missions.

orbital nextstep

An artist’s rendering of a Cygnus-derived habitat in Martian orbit. Image Credit: Orbital ATK


Larry Klaes is an author and freelance journalist specializing in news and educational work on the sciences. Klae's past endeavors include editor of SETIQuest magazine and President of the Boston chapter of the National Space Society (NSS). Klaes joined SpaceFlight Insider in 2016.

Reader Comments

For the volume to be launched, Bigelow Aerospace offers a better bargain with a Bigelow 330 launched on an Atlas V or a SpaceX Heavy. I agree that a research station in lunar orbit is sorely needed at this point in time. I think that anything placed should be larger right from the start because it should be able to support scientists and tourists.

I fully agree that the Bigelow Expandable Module represents a much more flexible approach. Cygnus was derived from the ATV and was designed from the outset to carry cargo not humans.

Daniel Wisehart

So it will take Orbital three years to put a Cygnus into orbit about the moon and SpaceX will have a Dragon on the surface of Mars in two years. What am I missing?

I see that this article was published (posted online) in late May, but I’ve only just found it and read it now, in early November. Did the SAFFIRE experiment go as planned? I will look it up. Have there been any more developments related to this proposed new space station in lunar orbit? Has NASA granted any contracts for it? Has Congress granted any funding?

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